Skip to main content

Fieldwork and flooding: muddy reflections

October and November have been defined for me, and I would assume many others, by flood.

In mid-October the extreme rainfall meant that the river catchment I am studying hit its highest ever recorded peak. The previous two major peaks and most in memory (I am yet to check the data in detail for this) were in January/February after months of already saturated ground. The summer was wet, but still, the timing is unusual.

With good data for rainfall, landuse and flood peak, this gives me two extreme flood events in the last five years to compare.

It also created a before/after line in the social data, as perception and effect of the flood within the catchment became evident. Participants were cut off, blocked in, land and infrastructure were damaged, winter feed lost.

Was I thinking about all this when the floods occured?

Well, I was watching the height data with increasing interest (and amazement) during the event. From a long way off. I was also in touch with some participants during the event and many have sent photos and videos afterwards that they took at the time.

Despite considering it I did not go into the catchment for a week, there were two key reasons for this:

Rather than being interested in the data, I was emailing around to check if those most likely to be affected were okay. At the end of the day data is data, but people are people.
Having a professional relationship doesn't mean that you don't care and any scientist that trys to tally this up with being 'objective' has a few screws loose in my opinion.

Secondly, I was more interested in being safe, and able to get home, I live very near the Severn and my catchment is a tributary of the the River Wye, I had significantly greater issues to deal with than the flooding of 'my' river. As, in fact, did most of the population of the catchment. I feel that between 'being committed to my PhD' and 'not drowing' I will choose the latter every time. I also refuse to be the person who gets swept away because they believe they are safe in their car. As a very wise lady stated, when you're thinking about crossing flood water, remember "the road was there".

In early November the rivers rose again, again I was not local (actually I was in Scotland on holiday). Interestingly I would have been far more likely to go to the catchment because the river did not seem to be getting as high as it might. It is the larger rivers that draw the attention, but perhaps the smaller ones from which we can learn so much. Given that the Severn, however, was still flooding this probably still wouldn't have been wise. In any case my river may be 'low risk' due to population density, but that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. Aside from falling in, the risk to roads and bridges is still possible and more likely to fool one; "the road was there".
Again I am wondering about the impact on the community (human and more-than-human); given the recent floods and weather I am also, significantly interested in the effect on the landscape.

Nb: Here the human/natural are so entwinned it is impossible and perhaps unwise to think of them as separate. The behaviour of a flood, the shape of the land, the land cover; to try and distinguish a 'perpetrator' for change as either human or natural seems to be missing the point.

Landscape change is fascinating to me, hence the focus on tree planting in my work. But researching the added aspect of flooding means working with this intertwinned nature of society, landscapes and environmental risk.

There is a further extension to this which I think is important to reflect on; and it's to do with my relationship with the landscape and its people; staying safe, caring, when and how to be where and do what...

When the landscape you are researching is a landscape of which you are a part (which, sorry, includes everyone because the act of researching, just being there, will make you a part of that landscape) then you become entwinned in that research. As is the case for all research when you really look at it.
Untangling the impacts of that is part of the job.

Staying safe can be trickier. The impacts on you, as a researcher, caring about the outcomes for those who live in the landscapes. That's something I don't think we reflect on often enough.